General Election 2017: What’s at Stake?

8 Jun

TCM contributing editor Philip Cunliffe recently spoke at an event organised by the Liverpool Salon on this topic. You can watch the discussion here (with thanks to Pauline Hadaway).

 

General Election 2017: The Politics of Nostalgia

8 Jun

The Labour Party – especially its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – has had a surprisingly good election campaign. Labour started 23 points down from the Conservatives; the latest polls put the Tory lead at anything from 12 to just 1 point – a historically unprecedented surge. Corbyn’s hunch that the more people saw of him and his policies, the more they would warm to Labour, was proven correct. Despite two years in which he had faced internal plots and sabotage, massive media hostility, a second leadership election, the EU referendum, and a snap election, Corbyn’s team had somehow managed to develop concrete, costed policies, that appear to have resonated strongly with some of the public. Because of the electoral system and other factors, the surge is may still not translate into Labour gains in parliament. Nonetheless, the Labour turnaround – coupled with UKIP’s ongoing collapse – clearly gives the lie to every defeatist Remainer who argued that Brexit would mean the immediate death of leftist politics in Britain.

The Labour surge partly reflects the dreadful campaign waged by Theresa May’s Conservative Party. May’s political strength before calling the election was exclusively based on the Conservatives’ unambiguous commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum. Conversely, Labour was in profound disarray, torn between a pro-EU metropolitan base and parliamentary party on the one hand, and northern and Welsh working-class Leave voters on the other, and led by a north London leadership with little apparent appeal in the traditional Labour heartlands. Because most British people are democrats, May’s position won support, with the so-called “48%” rapidly melting away. However, the Tories apparently mistook this as support for May and her agenda. In truth, May is a hollow, incompetent, technocrat with little vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future – and the election left her disastrously exposed. Despite calling a “Brexit election”, she had virtually nothing to say about it beyond slogans and platitudes, and the ground quickly shifted to matters of public spending and security, where she was far weaker. May’s comical avoidance of the public, awkward flailing under the slightest scrutiny, and frequent U-turns, made a mockery of her “strong and stable” mantra. She was not even able to hold her own base, threatening Tory-voting pensioners with a “dementia tax”, followed by a shrill retreat. Even if she is returned to office, as most commentators expect, she will be enduringly weakened and this cannot fail to influence the Brexit talks.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has drawn the largest crowds to political rallies seen in Britain since the 1950s, reflecting his desire to rebuild Labour into a social movement, not the zombified electoral machine it has become. While this ambition is very far from being realised, his campaign has been an important challenge to politics-as-usual in two respects.

First, he has made Labour the first major European political party to openly challenge austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, thereby tackling directly the paralysing mantra, promoted since the 1980s, that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). His pledges to open a £500bn investment bank, abolish tuition fees, revitalise public services and renationalise railways and the Royal Mail are premised on the slogan “it doesn’t have to be like this”. However backwards-looking his agenda may be – on which, more below – this is a welcome challenge to TINA. The idea that our social, economic and political system is set in stone, susceptible to only minor tweaks, has crippled progressive politics since the 1980s, and any revival must tackle it head on. For the Labour Party, it is a dramatic – albeit not deeply shared – abandonment of the “Third Way” centrism practised since 1988. Of course, the groundwork for thinking that voting can induce dramatic change was laid by the EU referendum. And, while Corbyn perhaps dare not say it openly, reflecting the party’s internal divisions, his proposals include policies that would be ruled out under EU state aid rules. In this sense, he is connecting – however faintly – with the democratic ideal of “taking back control”.

Secondly, Corbyn has openly challenged Britain’s approach to foreign and security policy, garnering public support for doing so. This is striking given that his main weakness was always assumed to be security, given his previous antiwar postures and engagement with groups like the IRA and Hamas. However, increasingly desperate attempts to use these associations to smear Corbyn, while perhaps resonating with elements of the Tory base, have largely fallen flat. Again, the experience of two decades of adventurist foreign policy seems to have persuaded many to conclude that Corbyn has perhaps got a point. His response to the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London – highlighting the “blowback” from Britain’s foreign interventions and craven relationship with states like Saudi Arabia, as well as austerity-driven cuts to the police – resonated strongly with the public. It spoke to their common sense after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tory bluster that Corbyn was “blaming the victims” failed to cut through. Corbyn’s position is, again, unique among major party leaders in Europe and among Labour leaders since 1983.

In short, the British public is being offered a starker and more meaningful choice today than at any point in the last 30 years. This speaks to the wider revival of democracy, and political contestation, flowing from the EU referendum, which has – again contrary to Remainer defeatists’ expectations – actually shifted the centre-ground leftwards. Immediately after the referendum, the Tories scaled back their austerity targets and began appealing to the “just-about-managing”, and now they are running on a washed-up version of One Nation Toryism, plagiarised in part from Ed Milliband’s “Blue Labour”. However weakly, May has emphasised the “good the state can do”, talked up an “industrial strategy”, and pledged to promote equality. This may yet win round some working-class voters – especially those who had previously defected from Labour to UKIP – but on this terrain, Corbyn has the more convincing record.

Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions and weaknesses surrounding Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s platform is its backward-looking, defensive character, premised heavily on the defence of the crumbling national-welfare state. Even the £500bn investment bank is premised on Keynesian pump-priming, not a vision of a future economy. There are serious structural challenges in contemporary capitalism that Corbynism does nothing to address, like the productivity crisis, the growing de facto labour surplus, and looming automation. Radical solutions, like universal basic income, shorter working weeks, and full automation, mooted in academia, are actually being trialled, in part, elsewhere in Europe. Corbyn’s vision for Brexit involves clinging onto EU regulations that stifle scientific experimentation, like genetic engineering. He and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, look at Uber and see only the problem of zero-hours contracts and poor pay – not the promise of a fully automated transport system, potentially under public, not private, control. In this sense, Corbyn’s platform is far more conservative than Labour manifestoes in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders like Harold Wilson talked about embracing the “white heat of technology” to transform the economy and society. Corbyn is channelling the Spirit of ’45, in the words of Ken Loach’s nostalgic documentary, not 2017, let alone some future year.

This same conservatism applies to Labour’s attitude to Brexit, which is all about dampening its economic effects, rather than charting a clear path for political and economic renewal. Despite May’s evident weaknesses, she earns cheers when talking tough on Brexit, just as she is booed when discussing public spending. Corbyn’s position is the opposite. Asked about Brexit and immigration, his responses on “managed migration” are stilted concessions to concerns about the “white working class” and its “legitimate concerns” about migration. It is a reminder that the Labour party remains caught between contradictory social bases. Corbyn has been unable to articulate a vision that squares this circle in a truly progressive manner. He has capitulated to the idea of migration as a “problem” by opposing “gangs” of migrant workers being “brought in” to “undercut” British wages (largely discredited as a myth) and proposing structural funds to relieve “pressures” on public services caused by immigration. He has not challenged the basic notion of the economy as a zero-sum game that causes people to see immigrants as competitors, because national-welfarism is ultimately premised on this notion of creating benefits from which “outsiders” are excluded. He has not even explicitly tried to link anti-immigration sentiment to neoliberalism, to encourage people to see the economic system, and not their fellow workers, as the problem. Instead he has made vague appeals to British traditions of “decency” and “care”.

A final problem is Corbyn’s politics of security. He treats this issue like all the rest: pump in more resources. But arguably there is only a tenuous connection between police numbers and security from terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn has rightly made his name opposing the bloated security state. Lacking here, as on the right, is any credible analysis of, and systematic solution to, the root causes of – especially home-grown – terrorism. Corbyn’s blaming of foreign interventions leaving “ungoverned spaces” merely rehashes tired clichés and does not explain why people within governed spaces – our own societies – end up terrorising their fellow citizens. Moreover, the historical response to “ungoverned spaces” has been to seek to govern them, through interventions to build “state capacity”, which have more often than not gone very badly wrong. What looks like an anti-interventionist agenda could very easily turn into an interventionist foreign policy.

Thus, Corbyn does not resolve the problems of Labourism, even if his campaign represents an important challenge to the status quo and potentially creates important space for progressive alternatives. Although a Corbyn government would be more decent and humane than another Tory administration, it would lack a clear, forward-looking vision for a post-Brexit Britain capable of addressing our many social and political problems. However, so would any Tory administration. The campaign has exposed Theresa May’s inability to fill Brexit with political content, beyond macho rhetoric and even more backward-looking and delusional proposals, like an “Empire 2.0” trading system with the ex-colonies and the recreation of the seventeenth-century Board of Trade. In that sense, Labour and Conservatives are both trading on a politics of nostalgia; the poetry of the future remains to be written.

Lee Jones

Macron’s European Trap

11 May

This article was originally published on the Cambridge University website.

By any account, the French presidential election that ended last Sunday was extraordinary. The run-off in the second round was between two political ‘outsiders’: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. In the first round, the mainstream left and right candidates came fifth and third respectively, with the far left Jean-Luc Mélenchon coming in way ahead of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon. Many voters only decided late on who they would vote for, making this one of the most volatile elections on record.

The scandals affecting the centre-right candidate, François Fillon, overshadowed the campaign and relegated debates about political programmes into second place. In the run-up to last Sunday’s second round vote, a fierce argument raged – especially on the left – about the rights and wrongs of abstaining or spoiling one’s ballot paper. Political celebrities – such as the Greek Yanis Varoufakis – weighed in, urging French doubters to vote for Macron because “he is all that stands in between France and the fascism of Marine Le Pen”.

In the end, one in four of registered voters either stayed away last Sunday or spoilt their ballot paper.  What prevailed in the second round was the logic of lesser evil – voting for a candidate that is ‘not as bad’ as another – which goes some way to explaining the sombre tone of Macron’s victory speech on Sunday night at the Louvre in Paris.

For all the novelty, Macron’s election victory points to one important continuity: France’s complicated relationship with the rest of the European Union and its place within the Eurozone. When François Hollande was campaigning for the French presidency in 2012, it was the height of the Eurozone crisis with jobless figures reaching record levels and France’s economy in deep trouble. Aware of the opposition to austerity policies within France, Hollande promised to take-on the German government. He would discuss “firmly and amicably” with Ms Merkel and impress upon her the need for a new ‘growth pact’ for the Eurozone. His growth pact included proposals for Eurobonds to finance infrastructure spending and a transactions tax to fund development programs. His efforts came to nothing and the idea of a “growth pact” disappeared without a trace.

Something similar is happening today. Last Monday, a day after the French election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech where she insisted that Macron’s victory would not change German policy in Europe. The German position is clear: France must reform its economy first, and bring its budget deficits well within the Eurozone’s rules, before there is any discussion on Eurozone reform. Even then, it is very unlikely that anything that was contained in Macron’s programme – creation of a Eurozone parliament, a Eurozone budget and a Eurozone finance minister – will see the light of day. Such changes would require treaty reform that national governments say is out of the question. Referendums have left European governments so bruised that they are unwilling to risk putting treaty changes to the vote.

There is an irony here. Macron has been an openly pro-European candidate, regularly waving the European flag and taking the Ode to Joy – the EU’s ‘anthem’ – as his own campaign song. And yet, this very pro-Europeanism is what will most constrain a Macron presidency. Most likely as a first step is that Macron will be pushed into cutting budgets and reforming labour markets, doing so possibly by decree given the history of opposition to such measures. In exchange, he may get some mild reforms of the functioning of the Eurozone but ones that fall short of any need for ratification through referendum or by national parliaments. This outcome may be part of Macron’s strategy, where the rigidity of the Eurozone’s rules is used as a means of pushing economy reforms onto France. Either way, the bigger difficulties, to do with structural imbalances of the Eurozone, will remain untouched.

A problem Macron never has confronted is that his promises to transform France’s national growth model are made within a context where Eurozone membership which makes such a change almost impossible. Macron’s election was extraordinary in many respects but his experience of life inside the Eurozone is likely to be rather more run of the mill.

Chris Bickerton

Fear Wins in France

9 May

Last Sunday, Marine Le Pen came in third in a two-way race for the French Presidency. With the lowest turnout since 1969, Emanuel Macron won 44% among registered voters, abstentions plus over one million spoiled or blank ballots added up to 34%, and Le Pen won 22%. While most newspapers have trumpeted Macron’s 65% of expressed ballots, the real story of the election is one of dissatisfaction, strategic ambivalence and discontent. Even the status quo had to show up wearing anti-establishment garb. Macron, the great savior of the republic, is someone who stood apart from its major parties, while they collapsed around him. His En Marche! is not even a party but rather a political trick borrowed from Latin American politics or the likes of Silvio Berlusconi – a personal vehicle whose only purpose is to get him elected. The crisis of representation is the central fact of this election.

During the election, and its immediate aftermath, the dominant interpretation has been different: the moral imperative was to vote against the right-wing nationalist and then leave the rest to those who govern. We have argued before that there is no obligation to cast strategic votes against lesser evil candidates and that campaigns dominated by Lesser Evilism are undemocratic. During the campaign one isn’t supposed to bring up any of the lesser evil’s faults, for fear of undermining his or her chances, and there is nothing to hold him or her to afterwards. As such, Lesser Evil voting amounts to carte blanche for the victor. Merely by winning, the winner fulfills his mandate.

The results suggest most French people, like almost everyone else, can hold two thoughts in their head simultaneously: they disliked the FN more than Macron, but thought little of him and the status quo he represents. During the second round, one was not allowed to express much discontent with the present, nor the many good reasons for it, without looking like or being called a Le Pen supporter. With the bête noire of the FN out of the way, it will have to be continuously revived over the next five years to rebut perfectly valid criticism of Macron, his policies, the EU, the euro, the major parties, and the rest of it. If anything, the result underestimates the degree to which the sands are shifting beneath those who rule, since much of the vote for Macron was strategic. This graphic shows that the highest single reason given for voting Macron was opposition to Le Pen (h/t Jacobin)

Slide1

That is all the more reason why the ruling coalition will want fear of the right to overshadow serious political debate about central issues – like how deeply undemocratic the EU is, what a recipe for stagnation and inequality the Eurozone is, and how few answers the mainstream European parties have for these problems because they prefer to wander the halls of Brussels than represent their own constituents.

Those who govern need to be forced back into representing their own people and they won’t do it voluntarily. As the French election reminds us, the EU is not the only way they wish to avoid accountability. Establishment politicians are no less willing to employ the politics of fear than is the populist right – an inflated fear of fascism to match the right’s inflated fear of immigrants. Anything to avoid the harder task of convincing voters on the merits.

Alex Gourevitch

 

Macron is a symptom of France’s problems, not a solution to them

24 Apr

This post was originally published here by Prospect Magazine

Having fought a campaign around the theme of over-turning the political establishment and pitching himself as the leader of an insurgent citizen-led movement, that very same establishment greeted Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the first round of the French presidential election with a huge sigh of relief. This tells us something about the candidate who is now most likely to become the next president of France.

Macron’s success boils down to one key insight: the French Socialist party (PS) is a sinking ship and anyone tied to it will go down with it. Macron quit the government presided over by François Hollande just in time to make his image as an outsider plausible. He decided to run as an independent rather than seek the Socialist Party nomination by taking part in the open primaries. This laid the basis for his success. The relegation of the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, to fifth place in the first round, where he secured a paltry 6.35% of the vote, is the big story of this election so far. It had a decisive result in both propelling Macron to first place in the first round and in pushing up Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vote share to within a whisker of François Fillon. The latter got 19.94% of the vote, Mélenchon 19.62%.

The collapse of the PS made the Macron phenomenon possible and this dynamic will shape a Macron presidency, assuming he goes on to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round as many assume he will.  His En Marche! movement captured the imagination of many but this enthusiasm came from his call to break the mould of French party politics. Disillusionment with the capacity of these parties to organize and lead drew people to Macron. In this first round of voting, it was striking how often people said they were voting in order to avoid someone else getting through. This sort of negative reasoning suited Macron perfectly as he was the acceptable face of all anti-system feelings: he was a safe vote for anyone who wanted to give the political mainstream a kicking but preserve the status quo at the same time. This peculiar and contradictory desire for both change and continuity was summed up perfectly in the days before yesterday’s vote, where voting Macron became a way of avoiding a Mélenchon-Le Pen run-off.

The negative feelings behind the Macron phenomenon are not new. In 2012, François Hollande won the presidency on the back of huge anti-Sarkozy sentiment. In 2002, Jacques Chirac won in a run-off against Jean-Marie Le Pen, securing over 80% of the votes cast in an enormous wave of anti-National Front feeling. Negative sentiments rather than a positive endorsement of a distinctive programme have become central to determining who makes it to the Elysée palace, and Macron confirms this rule. Even in organisational terms, Macron and his En Marche! movement have some roots in the recent past. Back in 2007, the Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royale tried to create her own electoral movement, Desirs d’Avenir, after she received lukewarm support from the chauvinist barons of the PS. Her movement went nowhere after she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy but it was a sign that short-lived electoral vehicles built around the personality of a presidential candidate were possible in France as alternatives to traditional party machines.

What propels Emmanuel Macron forward as he fights to win the second round is the collapse of the French party political system and specifically the disappearance of the French PS as an electoral force. These disintegrative and negative dynamics make for very weak foundations going forward and explain why abstention is likely to be very high in the second round. Those congratulating themselves after Macron’s first round victory should think a bit harder about what is exactly is happening in France. Macron is a symptom of the country’s problems, not a solution to them.

Chris Bickerton

France’s anti-system election

21 Apr

This article was originally published in Juncture, the journal published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article was published in the spring issue of 2017 (Volume 23, Issue 4).

 

On the 22nd January 2012, the then Socialist Party candidate for the presidential elections in France, François Hollande, delivered what many believe was his election-winning speech. Speaking from a venue in Seine St Denis, a poor urban conurbation north of Paris given an edgy chic in the late 1990s by the French rap group, Nique Ta Mère (F*#* Your Mother), Hollande lurched to the left. “My real enemy is finance” declared a politician considered generally to be on the right of the Socialist Party.

Hollande’s speech that evening cemented his journey towards the French presidency. However, in a curious book published last year under the title of A President Should Not Say That, Hollande recounts how the speech was so nearly derailed by a shoe thrown at him by one of the thousands of people crowded into the hall.[1] The shoe landed in front of him and slid towards his lectern. The television cameras missed it and the incident was not picked up by the press. Had it hit me, remarks Hollande, I would probably have lost the presidential election.

This story captures in a dramatic fashion the fragility that has come to characterize mainstream political figures in France. With their popularity always in the balance, politicians feel as if they are stepping on egg shells. This is why they hide behind empty slogans and stock phrases, derision and opprobrium never very far away. Hollande’s presidency always had a quality of the improbable about it. His victory owed more to the strength of anti-Sarkozy feeling than support for his own program. The more leftwing elements of this program – such as the proposal to tax at 75% earnings over a million Euros – were gimmicks, conjured up on the hoof by his closest advisers and quietly shelved after Hollande’s victory. Though Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in 2007 had much greater momentum than Hollande’s in 2012, a similar dynamic was at work. Sarkozy chose to celebrate at a notoriously swanky Parisian restaurant on the Champs Elysée, Le Fouquet’s, and then to holiday off the coast of Malta on a yacht owned by Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s wealthiest industrialists and close friend of the newly-elected president. Throughout his presidency, Sarkozy was never able to shake-off the impression that he was obsessed with money. The soubriquet, ‘le Président bling-bling’, stuck with him throughout his five years in office.

The weak authority of France’s political class did not develop overnight and the causes are many. One is the drifting away of parties from their traditional social base. The French Socialists, for example, pretend to stand for the country’s blue collar workers but they have long been an urban, bourgeois and middle class party. The very idea of an identifiable social base has been challenged by deindustrialization and the emergence of chronic unemployment amongst French youth. Whereas in Britain supporters of the UK Independence Party have typically been retired ex-Conservative voters, in France a core part of the National Front’s vote today comes from the young. The political divide between rural and urban voters, softened greatly by the ‘Golden Age’ of French capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, has opened up once again with National Front supporters concentrated in rural and semi-rural areas.[2] Even for the National Front, however, there is no real core vote: since 2002 its support has undergone multiple changes including feminization, proletarianisation and secularization.

There has also been a waning of the ideologies that once underpinned the left and the right in France. Mitterrand’s embrace of the European Single Act in the mid-1980s put an end to the left’s hostility to the market but without proposing any new ideology or vision for the left. The French right has conventionally been viewed through the lens of the French Revolution and associated with three different traditions – counter-revolutionary, liberal and Bonapartist.[3] However useful that may have been to understand the likes of de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing, it does little to explain the appeal of Marine Le Pen whose recent electoral gains have been concentrated in communities that traditionally voted on the left. And as commentators have remarked, François Fillon’s campaign is an odd collection of all of these right-wing traditions, without capturing any in particular.[4]

The weakness of the political mainstream has become a structuring element of French political life. Without an identifiable social base or any coherent set of ideas, mainstream parties are adrift from society and fail to command much authority, At this point in a presidential election, a duel should emerge between the candidates of the left and the right: Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac/Jospin[5], Sarkozy/Royal, Hollande/Sarkozy. In 2002, the failure of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to get into the second round run-off was an electoral earthquake and experienced as such. No such duel is looking likely in this election. The two candidates leading in the polls are campaigning on a platform of ‘neither left nor right’ (Marine Le Pen) and ‘both left and right’ (Emmanuel Macron).

Of these two candidates, the most enigmatic is Macron. A relative newcomer to French politics, and someone who has never held elected office, Macron has become a darling of the French media. He represents the acceptable face of anti-system politics: young, progressive and pro-European. He has even been cited by those despairing about Brexit and Donald Trump as the savior of the global liberal order.

This desire for something new has been present for some time in France. In the 2007 campaign, Ségolène Royal – the Socialist Party candidate who was snubbed and maligned by the party’s chauvinist elite – established her own movement, Desirs d’Avenir. This went nowhere after Royal’s defeat but Macron is picking up where she left off. Macron’s movement – En Marche – is mainly an electoral platform but is part of the splintering and fragmentation of political organization in France seen also in its more radial cousin, the Nuit Debout movement that filled the Place de la République in Paris for a few months last year.  Macron’s main weakness is his program: after weeks of grandiose speeches but no real policies, En Marche has gone into policy overdrive, churning out endless proposals that seem disjointed and ad hoc.

If Macron is a revolutionary in search of an idea, Marine Le Pen is quite the opposite. The ideas are there and some of them have not changed much since the party was first founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972. The National Front’s program is an arduous read made up of 144 propositions that cover most aspects of public life. Whilst Le Pen has been a vocal defender of ‘Frexit’ – France’s exit from the European Union – her program states that France will seek to renegotiate its place in the EU and then put the results of this renegotiation to a popular vote, much the same approach taken by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to Macron, Le Pen is in many ways the quintessential political ‘insider’; she is, after all, running a party set up by her father. Her challenge to the system is in part ideological: she vituperates the political establishment for having given up on ‘the people’ and opposes her nationalist solutions to the ‘globalist’ policies which she believes have failed France.  Le Pen is also threatening to disrupt one of the only unifying forces of French politics that remain: the desire to keep the National Front out of power. This goal has contained the powerful disintegrative tendencies at the heart of French political life, at least until today.

Anti-system candidates are currently leading in France’s presidential campaign. There will be some who welcome Macron as a centrist and a unifier, as many did with Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election late last year. This misses how much of an outsider Macron is, and how unconventional and unexpected his victory would be for the politics of the Fifth Republic. Macron may yet fall into third or fourth place as his competitors pile on the pressure but at present he is neck-and-neck with François Fillon for the coveted second place in the first round ballot.

A Macron victory, just like a Le Pen victory, would represent the collapse of the political mainstream in France and its traditional system of parties. It is unlikely that French politics would revert back to its traditional patterns and rituals. François Hollande was saved in 2012 by the few meters that separated his lectern from the shoe that was thrown at him. Mainstream candidates may not be as lucky in 2017.

Chris Bickerton

[1] Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme (2016) Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… (Paris: Stock) p18.

[2] Pascal Perrineau (2014) La France Au Front (Paris: Fayard) p38.

[3] Rene Remond (1982) Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne)

[4] ‘Le discours de François Fillon à la loupe’, Le Monde, 16 December 2016.

[5] For the Chirac/Jospin run off in 1995, Chirac’s place in the second round was a surprise as the candidate on the right expected to get through was Edouard Balladur. However, what was not in doubt was that there would be a left/right run off in the second round.

Labour’s Brexit crisis is May’s opportunity

18 Apr

Cynics will read Theresa May’s U-turn in deciding to call an early general election merely as an opportunist move to exploit opposition weaknesses. The Labour Party is deeply divided and at its lowest ebb in the polls since 1983. UKIP has imploded, with four leaders in the past year and the defection of its only MP. The LibDems remain decimated after their 2015 rout. May sees an opportunity to inflict on Labour its worst defeat since the 1930s, and mop up UKIP voters, cementing Tory domination at Westminster. The government’s slim majority will be expanded, giving the executive far greater room for manoeuvre; it will be better able to face down calls for another Scottish independence referendum; and it will be empowered to push through its EU negotiations without risk of eventual defeat in the Commons, and strengthened against the Lords.

None of this is wrong – May’s own speech makes some of the motivation explicit – but is one-sided. It doesn’t account for why the opportunity she is seizing exists: why is the Labour Party in such dire straits? Why are the LibDems again so marginal? Why is UKIP imploding? A simple answer is: Brexit.

UKIP’s situation is obvious. Its entire raison d’être has been to force a referendum on EU membership. Having succeeded, it is now defunct. Last year’s foolish predictions of a Farragist take over in the event of a Leave vote are exposed as nonsense. With its agenda snatched by the government and its big beasts, major donor and even councillors abandoning it, UKIP is rudderless and its vote share is flat-lining.

The misnamed Liberal Democrats have explicitly sided with “the 48 percent” – the defeated minority in the EU referendum. They have no intention of respecting the outcome of that vote and have done nothing but conspire – wholly ineffectually – to thwart it. As reality moves forward, the LibDems have less and less to say about it.

But the real disarray is Labour’s. At least the LibDems have a clear position on Brexit, one that is likely to gain them some Remainer votes. Labour’s position is demented. Put simply, it is because Labour has nothing coherent or meaningful to say on Brexit that May can win so big in June. However, Labour’s incoherence on Brexit represents something much deeper than Corbynite-Blairite divisions within the parliamentary party, on which many media and academic pundits focus. Labour’s Brexit problem is an expression of its fundamental and inexorable political and structural decline.

In its heyday, the Labour Party sought to further the interests of working people through state intervention in capitalist markets. The party was forced to abandon this distinctive Labourist political tradition by Thatcher’s decisive defeat of the wider labour movement in the 1980s. Labourism was replaced with the “Third Way” of New Labour, which accepted the market’s primacy but sought to combine it with social inclusion and social justice through a less ambitious yet more repressive deployment of state resources. New Labour abandoned the explicitly working-class component of the old Labour programme, triangulating rightward to seek votes among middle-class middle-Englanders, but it retained the party’s more fundamental orientation to the institutions of the British state as the agent of social change.

As the British state was transformed into a member state of the EU, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour Party’s ideological attachments transformed with it.  The EU’s thin cosmopolitanism and its very limited protections of workers rights – so-called “social Europe” – provided one component of the party’s progressive-sounding, Third-Way cover story for its steady abandonment of the interests of its traditional, working-class voters. This story also appealed to the public-sector middle classes that had long supported the party’s high state spending and social programmes, upon which their own livelihoods depended. As their social base shifted and narrowed, then, Labour leaders and active supporters gradually joined a politico-bureaucratic elite that was increasingly cosmopolitan and transnationally networked. A party with strong Eurosceptic traditions was thereby converted into a pillar of the pro-EU consensus.

The party’s internal contradictions were initially moderated by modest, Third-Way social spending and privatised Keynesianism under Blair and Brown, but were dramatically unmasked by the global financial crisis and, especially, the EU referendum. Labour is now caught between two, increasingly incompatible social constituencies: a disaffected, mostly Northern working class, increasingly withdrawing from politics or shifting to UKIP in protest, battered by economic decline, concerned about immigration and increasingly Eurosceptic; and a metropolitan, mostly Southern middle-class, largely benefiting from economic liberalisation and more committed to the EU.

Faced with the EU referendum, a defining political moment, Labour sided with the existing institutions of the British state against the party’s traditional supporters, and with the EU against popular sovereignty. Whatever his own Eurosceptic, Bennite proclivities, Jeremy Corbyn could not align Labour with the Leave campaign without risking its metropolitan support base, and with them many urban seats. Sacrificing his own principles for party unity, he waged a weak and pragmatic Remain campaign.

Corbyn’s true colours showed after the referendum, when he insisted on respecting the result and invoking Article 50. But the party’s profound political crisis remains. Labour cannot mimic the LibDems without losing its residual working-class base, yet it cannot truly embrace Brexit for fear of alienating middle-class, urban voters. It therefore remains stuck in limbo. Its MPs voted to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and only then, having wasted any leverage it had, did the party it issue any conditions for its support in leaving the EU. At best, this makes Labour a bystander for the two years of Brexit negotiations and then a potential spoiler when the final deal is put before parliament. The can has merely been kicked down the road, presumably in the vain hope that – as Tony Blair and others wish – opinion will shift, making an eventual “no” vote more electorally viable.

Labour’s crisis is May’s opportunity. After all, Theresa May is hardly a political colossus. In many respects, she is incompetent, flailing around on core issues and reduced to pilfering policies from Corbyn’s own disastrous predecessor. What allows her to bestride the political stage is not any great political mind, nor any deep popular affection for her party, government, or policies. It is that, alone among the main UK-wide party leaders, and against her own personal sympathies as a cautious Remainer, she is willing to represent the will of the majority of voters as expressed in the EU referendum. This allows her to posture – entirely credibly – against the unelected Lords and the opposition parties as the only person who will act on the referendum’s verdict.

The election campaign will bear this out because, as we have previously argued, the last nine months have been wasted in pointless wrangling over whether to respect the vote, and who gets to pull the Article 50 lever, rather than on the terms of Brexit. UKIP has absolutely nothing to say. The LibDems will merely re-run a referendum campaign that they lost, appealing only to the most embittered Remainers. Labour faces a stark choice. If it cannot now develop a meaningful manifesto for Brexit, an articulated vision for post-EU Britain, rather than a laundry list of things they oppose plus Corbyn’s high-minded rhetoric, it is doomed. All the signs suggest that it cannot rise to the challenge. Labour MPs and mainstream pundits will blame Corbyn for the defeat; left-wingers will defend Corbyn and blame Blairite disloyalty. Both sides will deflect attention from the real rot at the party’s heart. Brexit has exposed the fact that Labour’s entire political tradition is bankrupt.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

%d bloggers like this: